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Zola Jesus - Conatus

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Artist: Zola Jesus

Album: Conatus

Label: Sacred Bones

Review date: Oct. 3, 2011


Zola Jesus - "Seekir" (Conatus)


A number of parallels between Zola Jesus and Lady Gaga can be drawn. There is the singular, artistic persona that represents an entire project of identity. The moody drama that stems from this persona infused into each song. The challenge to popular music orthodoxy from within the system. And above all, the placement of a powerful operatic voice at the focal point, and in Nika Roza Danilova’s case, the classical training that goes along with it.

But there are two major differences. First, Zola Jesus doesn’t dress up run-of-the-mill pop music and call it edgy. She makes real monster music, and possesses an aesthetic that feels authentically liminal, not cribbed from an art history book. Second, the grad school theoretical exercises that play out in her act actually do guide her development. In naming her latest album — the one most poised for break-out success — Conatus, she chose more than just an latinate word. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz defined this word in the philosophical world as an "innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself." In a word, conatus describes pop’s fundamental method of self-preservation. And through this album, Danilova follows through on that endeavor.

It starts right at the beginning, with the transition between “Avalanche” and “Vessel.” The dirge-like drum machine and processed string arrangement of the former are standard Zola Jesus fare, appearing in some form or another on every album. The soft-loud, demure-wailing back and forth between the verse and the chorus is also typical. Which is not to say that it doesn’t remain effective. If anything, each tilt Danilova takes at this formula becomes sleeker, stronger and more effective. In closing out “Avalanche,” however, all the artifice drops out and the voice comes soaring out over the top. And when it all kicks back in, the machinery is entirely different. On “Vessel,” Danilova moves out of the underground industrial ghetto into a much shinier version. Zola Jesus at this point has more in common with “Blue Monday,” both the New Order original and the plasticized ’90s cover by self-proclaimed death popsters Orgy.

The Lady Gaga parallel is even stronger now, as well, given a big increase in accessibility. The opening of “Hikikomori” is a dead ringer for “Judas.” But rather than keep it club-safe, Danilova delves deeper into the passion and the agony to actually make a connection. She avoids veering into just another dance procedural to risk alienating her audience by staying in some rather dark places. And the live-string accompaniment only makes it more moving, with the instrumental complexity matching that of her voice.

The lyrical content is largely superfluous, and despite the obvious upgrade in production and a newfound embrace of the spotlight, the program is very much the same. At first glance, this can breed monotony. Understandable. In many ways, this is not an album that is well suited for casual listening. The waves of moaning and the on-off-on drum machine that serves as the backbone of “Ixode,” “In Your Nature,” and “Skin” are cut from the same fabric that Danilova has been working with since before The Spoils. What shouldn’t be discounted is the quality of that fabric, however, and even more so, how it calls attention to the edges, so wildly frayed in two very different ways.

At the first edge is “Seekir,” which is the closest Zola Jesus gets to a club hit. It’s aggressive but harmless, a haunted Cut Copy track if there ever was one. At the opposite end is “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake.” All bets are off here. There is zero restraint, with wailing so extreme that it pushes past dramatic to anthemic.

Conatus is not necessarily an enormous step forward. Rather, in keeping with its own philosophical connotations, it’s an enormous step toward surviving and ultimately prospering now that Zola Jesus is at the cusp of a much wider collective consciousness. Danilova takes the peaks higher than ever and manages to avoid both the pitfalls of monotony and excessive experimentation. To find the balance between accessibility and progression is an art. And it’s one more area in which Danilova proves masterful.

By Evan Hanlon

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